Janine di Giovanni’s ‘The Vanishing: The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East’ was published in December.
An Italian-American Catholic journalist with vast experience covering the Middle East, Di Giovanni set out “to record for history people whose villages, cultures, and ethos would perhaps not be standing in one hundred years’ time.”
The fruits of this labour have helped to form a highly accessible introduction to a tragedy which has been unfolding for decades.
In both Iraq and Syria, Christians have come under assault as authoritarian regimes have collapsed.
Seeing the beleaguered Christian minority as an easy target in post-Saddam Iraq, Al-Qaeda affiliates waged war against them. After this initial devastation, in 2014, the Islamic State group captured much of Iraq’s ancient Christian heartland – murdering, enslaving and deporting thousands of Christians before leaving their homes and churches in ruins.
As di Giovanni points out, Iraq’s Christian population has fallen from nearly 1.4 million before the war to around 250,000-300,000 today.
Meanwhile, the explosion of jihadi violence in Syria from 2011 onwards has wrought devastation. Di Giovanni suggests that about 700,000 Christians had left their homes by 2015, out of a pre-war population of 1.1 million.
Elsewhere, in Gaza, low-level anti-Christian violence convinced most Christians that they have no future there. Instead of having a secular government to shield them from extreme Islamists, the election of the terrorist group Hamas in 2006 has made matters worse, not least by ensuring that a needless military conflict with Israel is continued.
Even strength in numbers is not always enough. In Egypt, Christians make up around 10 per cent of the population. Yet the creeping Islamisation of Egyptian society has poisoned relations between Muslims and Christians.
Christians constantly endure attacks on both property and person alike, which is made worse by the pervasive inequalities within the justice system which ensures that Christians have no legal recourse when attacked.
In her book, di Giovanni does a good job of laying out the key facts, but this is far from being a definitive account.
The omission of Lebanon is hard to understand. A country which was until recently majority Christian was also an example of a successful, pluralist society before demographic instability and the arrival of Palestinian militants led to the Lebanese Civil War. Since then, the Christian population has plummeted.
Di Giovanni’s decision to focus on the tiny Gaza strip rather than the West Bank is also perplexing, and it prevents the reader from considering the factors which have contributed to the sharp numerical decline in Bethlehem and other places where corrupt Palestinian politicians are in charge.
Indeed, rather than directing such sharp criticism at Israel, the author should have considered why the Christian community is growing in the only non-Muslim state in the region and declining almost everywhere else.
Expanding the geographical focus slightly would also have allowed for a proper reflection on what occurred in Turkey a century or more ago.
As painstakingly described by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi in ‘The Thirty-Year Genocide,’ successive Turkish governments chose to exterminate or deport their Christian population, with the effect that a country which was 20 per cent Christian in the late 19th century was just 2 per cent Christian in 1924.
Today’s genocidal actors have a similar endgame in mind: removing Christians from the present, the past and the future.
Those directing this onslaught understand fully that without living Christians, an entire history can be erased forever.
Without Christians, people can forget that the Hagia Sophia was constructed as a church or that generations of Christians worshiped within its walls.
This cannot be forgotten, and nor can Christians in the West continue to look the other way as their brothers in the faith are persecuted in the cradle of Western civilisation.